No More Public Editor at NYTimes, Liz Spayd Out - iMediaEthics
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Liz Spayd (Credit: NYTimes)

The New York Times has eliminated its public editor position.

The Huffington Post‘s Michael Calderone reported, based on anonymous sources this morning, that the Times is ending the position, which was established in 2003 after the Jayson Blair fabrication scandal. Yesterday, Calderone reported, the Times created a Reader Center to respond to the public.

Liz Spayd was appointed the sixth public editor in May 2016.  Her term was set to last two years, but she will be out of the position this Friday, June 2, according to the Times‘ memo sent to iMediaEthics.

Spayd, a former Washington Post editor as well as editor and publisher of Columbia Journalism Review, has not tweeted since the news broke.

Previous public editors at the Times were Daniel Okrent, Byron Calame, Clark Hoyt, Arthur Brisbane, and Margaret Sullivan.  None faced as much criticism as Spayd, who just last month Slate argued was “squandering the most important watchdog job in journalism.”

iMediaEthics has had a bone to pick with Spayd in recent months, involving Kevin Deutsch, a former Newsday and New York Daily News staffer, who wrote a freelance article for the Times in December about drug use on Long Island. In February, the Times added a lengthy editor’s note revealing that the newspaper was unable to verify the existence of two of Deutsch’s sources.  Spayd never responded to iMediaEthics’ inquiries asking if her office was investigating how the apparently fake sources made it through to publication.

Partly due to Spayd’s apparent disinterest in the Deutsch story, iMediaEthics pursued the matter and was unable to verify the existence of 14 of Deutsch’s sources in 40 of his stories for Newsday, New York Daily News, Newsweek and the New York Times.

Similarly, rather than dealing with the important occurrence of fabricated sources in the pages of the Times, Spayd used a March column to write about a far-right online campaign that complained about Times culture writer Sopan Deb’s tweet directing rapper Bow Wow’s tweet to a satire site. Last week, she devoted a column to an editing error that changed a gender pronoun for a gender non-binary actor, a column that conservative news and opinion site Heat Street labeled a “thousand-word apology.”

In December, Spayd appeared on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight and criticized Times‘ reporters’ tweets that Carlson read on air, calling the tweets “outrageous,” even though one such tweet was just a headline. Spayd later walked back her criticism.

iMediaEthics has written to Spayd to ask what reason she was given for the elimination of her position. iMediaEthics wrote to the Times and was provided the following memo from publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr.

“Dear Colleagues,

“Every one of us at The Times wakes up every day determined to help our audience better understand the world. In return, our subscribers provide much of the funding we need to support our deeply reported, on-the-ground journalism.

“There is nothing more important to our mission, or our business, than strengthening our connection with our readers. A relationship that fundamental cannot be outsourced to a single intermediary.

“The responsibility of the public editor – to serve as the reader’s representative – has outgrown that one office. Our business requires that we must all seek to hold ourselves accountable to our readers. When our audience has questions or concerns, whether about current events or our coverage decisions, we must answer them ourselves.

“To that end, we have decided to eliminate the position of the public editor, while introducing several new reader-focused efforts. We are grateful to Liz Spayd, who has served in the role since last summer, for her tough, passionate work and for raising issues of critical importance to our newsroom. Liz will leave The Times on Friday as our last public editor.

“The public editor position, created in the aftermath of a grave journalistic scandal, played a crucial part in rebuilding our readers’ trusts by acting as our in-house watchdog. We welcomed that criticism, even when it stung. But today, our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be. Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.

“We are dramatically expanding our commenting platform. Currently, we open only 10 percent of our articles to reader comments. Soon, we will open up most of our articles to reader comments. This expansion, made possible by a collaboration with Google, marks a sea change in our ability to serve our readers, to hear from them, and to respond to them.

“We will work hard to curate and respond to the thousands of daily comments, but comments will form just one bridge between The Times and our audience. We also, of course, engage with readers around the globe on social media, where we have tens of millions of followers. We publish behind-the-scenes dispatches describing the reporting process and demystifying why we made certain journalistic decisions. We hold our journalism to the highest standards, and we have dedicated significant resources to ensure that remains the case.

“Phil Corbett, a masthead editor, is responsible for making sure that our report lives up to our standards of fairness, accuracy and journalistic excellence. His team listens and responds to reader concerns and investigates requests for corrections. Phil anchors a reader-focused operation intent on providing  accountability that is already larger than any of our peers. And we are expanding this investment still further.

“As the newsroom announced yesterday, we have created a Reader Center led by Hanna Ingber, a senior editor, who will work with Phil and many others to make our report ever more transparent and our  journalists more responsive. The Reader Center is the central hub from which we engage readers about our journalism, but the work will be shared by all of us.

“It’s also worth noting that we welcome thoughtful criticism from our peers at other news outlets. Fortunately, there is no shortage of those independent critiques.

“We are profoundly grateful to our six public editors — Daniel Okrent, Byron Calame, Clark Hoyt, Arthur Brisbane, Margaret Sullivan and Liz Spayd. These remarkable advocates tirelessly fielded questions from
readers all over the world and have held The Times to the highest standards of journalism.

“Changes like these offer the strongest paths towards meaningfully engaging with our growing audience of loyal readers, which rightfully demands more of us than ever before. We are up to the challenge.”

Margaret Sullivan, the fifth ombudsman for the Times, who Spayd replaced, tweeted about the end of the role. While Sullivan, and the New York Times‘ own news story on the elimination of the position, linked the end of the public editor role to cost-cutting, iMediaEthics notes that Spayd’s contract is set to end in one year, seemingly leaving the Times to pay another year’s salary for someone no longer working at the newspaper. Equally curious is the fact that Spayd’s role will reportedly be replaced by expanded “reader-focused efforts” as well as a “Reader Center,” which would seem to require far more than one person to properly manage and monitor.

iMediaEthics e-mailed the Times to ask about these issues. The Times pointed back to Sulzberger’s memo.

This story is being updated.

CORRECTION - May 31, 2017 1:36 PM EST

Spayd will leave the public editor role June 2, not May 2. We regret the error.

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No More Public Editor at NYTimes, Liz Spayd Out

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